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Flamenco History


Flamenco is the music and dance of the Andalucian region of Spain with its roots in east Indian, Arabic and European Gypsy music. It is a hybrid music in the sense that it is totally unique and separate from the musical forms which created it-very much like the emergence of American jazz.

From the VIII to the XV centuries, when Spain was under Arab domination, their music and musical instruments were modified and adapted by Christians and Jews, and later by gypsies.

These groups in turn were persecuted at the end of the Arab rule and during the Spanish inquisition so that Flamenco was born and thrived as a voice of protest and hope and as a cultural and emotional expression of the subjugated masses.

The essence of Flamenco is cante, or song, often accompanied by guitar music and improvised dance. Music and dance fall into three categories; jondo or grande (profound or deep) intensely sad and dealing with themes of death, anguish, despair or religious sentiments; intermedio (intermediate) less profound but also moving, often with an oriental cast to the music; and chico (small or light) with subjects of love, ribald humour and happiness.

Flamencos began presenting their art professionally in the XIX century in the Cafe Cantantes and present-day flamenco performances have essentially not changed very much since then (i.e., The dancer as the main attraction accompanied by the song, guitar and hand-clapping.)

Flamenco is very much alive today in Spain at the grass roots level in Andalucia at weddings, parties and social events as a cultural expression where young and old, male and female participate equally. At the same time Flamenco is being performed by Gypsies and non-Gypsies alike on stages far away from its birthplace and over the years it has become a highly polished art form with countless aficionados world-wide.

Raices…Flamenco Roots
by Victor Kolstee

Anyone who has ever visited Spain is immediately struck by it’s multi-layered history. Often the site of a church or cathedral was previously a Muslim mosque which was built on top of a Roman temple.
Likewise, Spain’s musical and cultural roots lie close to the surface and come to light with a little excavation.

Flamenco is the music and dance of southern Spain’s Andalucia, with deep historical roots in Indian, Greek, Roman, Persian and Jewish cultures. We will examine two of these sources – namely the Indian and Jewish
traditions to see what their respective connections might be and what part they play in its’ development.

Flamenco’s oldest roots can be traced to the Indian sub-continent; more specifically Northwest India and what is today Pakistan. The arm movements and especially the hand and finger movements typical of flamenco dance are reminiscent of Indian dance in which the hands are used to illustrate stories. Today the movements in flamenco are purely aesthetic and after centuries and great distances have lost their original meaning.

The 12-beat compas cycles with fixed accents and set scale and melodic patterns of flamenco are thought to have originated from India’s ragas which are much more elaborate and complex in rhythmic and melodic scope.

The idea of improvising within very strict musical rhythmic patterns is common to both, while both Indian and flamenco dance contrast a graceful upper-body and arms with dynamic footwork.

The different classifications of ragas according to the seasons, time of day, masculine or feminine, emotion and spirituality also are found to a lesser extent in flamenco songs such as Soleares (loneliness, Alegrias
(happiness), Alboreas (dawn), Carceleras (prisoner’s laments), Martinete (blacksmith song), and Nanas (lullabies). The sacred Hindu dance themes of bliss and agony are at the heart of flamenco’s inner drama.

There is little doubt that these Indian characteristics were brought to Spain by Gypsies who spread westward from Persia and Pakistan, arriving in Europe in the 14th and 15th centuries. Some scholars insist, however, hat their arrival was as early as 711 AD as part of the conquering Arab armies who crossed over from North Africa. It seems likely that the nomadic trades which they learned in Northern India such as entertaining, herbal healing, metalworking, horse trading, and fortunetelling were much in demand
by invaders.

After the initial turmoil of conquering most of Spain died down, the victorious Arabs created quite a peaceful climate for all the different ethnic groups to co-exist for the next 800 years. This was the so-called
“Spain of the three religions,” where Christian, Arab and Jewish intellectual and artistic activity thrived to further mold a distinct Andalucian culture which had been forming since the time of the Phoenicians.

This co-existence was made possible by religious and legal principles of the Umayyad rules and proved to be an exceptional period not only for Spain, but for the Western World. This was a time of inter-cultural,
philosophical, and inter-denominational tolerance and co-operation which has rarely been matched in history. Judaism, for example, has never interrelated more closely or more productively with any other culture than it did with the Islamic civilization of al-Andalus. It was in Andalucia where Arabs,
Jews and Gypsies found a physical as well as cultural and musical landscape which resonated in their oldest rhythmic and melodic memories. The liturgical music of the Mozarabs with Hindu, Greek, Hebrew, Persian origins combined with local folk music and dances dating back to Phoenician and Roman times to form a unique Andalucian musical culture.

The Christian, Muslim, and Jewish contribution to flamenco at this point in history could be said to be indirect insofar as they were creating Andalucian culture which is the earth where flamenco took root. It was not until the fall of Granada in 1492 (and the subsequent ouster of all Muslims and formed conversion of Jews) that political and social turmoil helped create flamenco. Andalucia was conquered territory and its’ people were treated as such by the Christian kings and the churches Inquisition.

Flamenco was created and flourished, not in the Andalucian sun but rather in the caves at night with robbers, highwaymen, common criminals and other clandestine groups who feared political and religious persecution. Flamenco became a voice of protest of dissenting Christians, outlaws, Muslims, Jews and other social outcasts who did not fit into the new political order. Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave Spain and Gypsies were forced to settle down and put an end to their nomadic lifestyle.

As the Jewish voice was extinguished in Spain after 1492, it can be said that it resurfaced to some degree in flamenco. The plaintive wailing of religious prayer, now forbidden, became the secular “aaiiee” of the
conversos (Jews forced to convert to Christianity), with the notable exception of the Saeta. The Saeta sung today during Holy Week dates back centuries and is generally agreed to have Jewish origins. One can imagine the conversos singing in a very traditional manner for them but changing the words to provide their new faith and Christian devotion: singing, no doubt, with extra verve and passion to dispel any doubts of their sincerity. There are also strong similarities between certain synagogal chants and some early
forms of cante flamenco. The expressive and emotional nature of the Kol nidrei or Kaddish remind one of the older versions of the siguiriyas.

“Cantor”, the Jewish word for singer, and flamenco’s “cantaor” themselves suggest a historical connection. The word jaleo, which refers to the art of hand clapping and shouts of encouragement characteristic of flamenco, comes from the Hebrew word jalel, which means to encourage. Also in a more indirect way, the Gregorian chants (an important element in Spanish music) are themselves an offshoot of the primitive Jewish liturgy. The adaptations of one to the other of Mozarab and Hebrew music can still be heard in such
songs as Sherele and Hava Nagila.

The word “flamenco,” which means Flemish in Spanish, might itself have Jewish roots. Many Jews who left Spain instead of converting migrated to Flanders and were allowed to sing their religious chants unmolested. These songs were referred to as flamenco songs by their kin who remained in Spain, and later the term “flamenco” was applied to anything scandalous, loud, libertarian and bordering on bad taste.

One flamenco song and dance form with an interesting history is the Peteneras Ancestors of Sephardic Jews, who were expelled from Spain at the end of the 15th century, and who today live in Turkey and other Middle Eastern countries. They still speak Ladino (a form of old Spanish with many Hebrew words added), and conserve many of their old Spanish customs and traditions. Among these, they sing songs very similar to many of flamenco’s cantes, including the Peteneras which is said to have been passed on
generation to generation since their exodus from Spain. The verse that deals with Rebeco and the Synagogue dates to pre- 1492 when Jews and synagogues disappeared from Spain. It is thought that the Peteneras, which today forms part of the flamenco repertoire, was itself a Sephardic song. This seems
plausible, given it’s unique melody and structure.

Another reason to suspect that it’s origins are Jewish is that even today many gypsies refuse to sing or dance Peteneras as it is considered unlucky to do so. This probably stems from the fact that original
interpreters of this song – The Sephardic Jews – suffered persecution and anyone seen to be fraternizing with them or singing songs of Jewish origins would suffer the consequences.

As flamenco has become a hot topic of debate and study over the past few decades, undoubtedly more facts will surface, and more theories will be developed. Today there are various schools of thought in this polemic, with some claiming that the Arabs were the sole originators, some insisting that the form is 100 percent Gypsy, others championing Jews or Christian Andalucians, and others subscribing to none of the above, developing their own theories.

It is probably helpful to think in terms of parallel development, where one culture is touched by another and is irrevocably changed, and this process is repeated often with numerous cultures, which are thereby
themselves changed. As we have seen, flamenco music is a perfect example of this type of change and adaptation process which continues today as the newer generation of flamencos have incorporated jazz, Brazilian and African elements into modern flamenco.

*Victor Kolstee gratefully acknowledges the research and excellent scholarship in Don Pohren’s The Art of Flamenco, Sofia Noel’s Relaciones de Diversos Grupos Etnicos con el cante Jondo, J.M. Caballero Bonald’s Luces y Sombras del Flamenco, and Felix Grande’s Memoria del Flamenco.